The Invention of Time, and Its Effects, Part I

Time is a funny thing, one that we take for granted, until we fail to account for its effects. We have all kinds of clichés, ancient and modern, that revolve around the concept of time. Time flies, time stretches on, time is relative. It can be well-spent, wasted, or lost. But, we often forget about how our modern understanding of the simple concept of the time of day came into being.

Prior to the nineteenth century, there wasn’t much of a need to have a unified concept of time. Given the speed of both transportation and communication, very little relied upon precise timekeeping, particularly over long distances. There were a few exceptions to that rule, such as the early-warning semaphore systems set up in some locations that could transmit an extremely simple message over a long distance in a short period—but most uses for precision timing were at the local level. In most places, noon was the time in which the sun was perceived to be directly overhead—and it really didn’t matter whether noon was the same where you were standing and where someone else was located. The only divisions of time that made much difference were days—and even then, there was often a substantial amount of confusion about what day was actually being experienced. In an era when it might take several weeks for a letter to travel from one point in the United States to another, this made sense, even if it occasionally created confusion. Taken to the global level, the irrelevance of precise timing was even more obvious. One of the oft-cited examples came from the conclusion of the War of 1812. British and American negotiators signed the Treaty of Ghent on December 24, 1814—but they did so in modern-day Belgium. Not surprisingly, it took weeks for word of the end of the war to reach the United States. On January 8, 1815, more than two weeks after the formal armistice, British Major General Sir Edward Packenham launched an assault upon New Orleans, and was defeated by the forces assembled under Major General Andrew Jackson. Word of Jackson’s victory traveled from New Orleans to the eastern seaboard, reaching most American population centers at the same time as the notification of the treaty. As a result, most Americans erroneously believed Jackson’s victory triggered the peace treaty.

The invention of near-instantaneous communication created a greater impetus for having a common understanding of time. When it became possible to send a telegraph communication from Washington, D.C. to New York City in a few moments, it began to matter more that the sender and the recipient have at least a similar concept of the time of the communication. And yet, there still wasn’t an enormous pressure to standardize timing—the basic assumption was that the time at the origin of the message was all that mattered. However, as railroad networks expanded throughout the mid-nineteenth century, the importance of precision timing became more obvious. Rail networks relied upon timing to ensure that two trains were not attempting to occupy the same section of track at the same time—particularly if they were headed in opposite directions. This was an exceptionally challenging situation in busy rail junctions, located in major cities, and because each rail line tended to keep its own time without regard for the others, accidents were incredibly commonplace. In the busiest stations, it was normal to have a series of clocks showing different times, based entirely upon which rail line was being consulted. Most rail lines set their times according to the perceived noon hour at their headquarters, or at their busiest depots—but that perception differed as a result, because “high noon” in Baltimore is slightly different than “high noon” in Philadelphia. Because the nation’s rail system was so decentralized, there were more than 100 separate time systems in use in 1880. A traveler riding the rails from New York City to San Francisco needed to update their pocket watch twenty times or more if they wished to keep track of the local time.

Obviously, breaking the nation into dozens of time zones created a completely unworkable system—a fact that U.S. and Canadian railroad companies recognized in 1883. On November 18 of that year, they implemented a new scheme—the division of the North American continent into standardized time zones. The four most associated with the United States (Eastern, Central, Mountain, and Pacific) were created primarily for the convenience of the rail networks—although there was an effort to create the lines following existing structures when possible, such as putting entire states in a single zone, it was not the highest priority to do so. And, there was no effort to account for the geographic size of each time zone, or the fact that people living at the western end of a time zone would have a significantly different perception of “noon” than those at the eastern end. The railroads created their new standardized approach without government input or sanction—they merely announced that they would be implementing their new system, and anyone reliant upon their services would need to comply with their new zones, lest they miss their trains or connections.

There is no doubt that the railroads had no means to force their preferences upon society as a whole—and yet, the raw economic power of rail networks, and the reliance of the nation upon them for every other large-scale undertaking, meant that the railroads’ decision had the same effect as a national law, even if it was not backed by such a legislative effort. Most people weren’t particularly tied to the previous system—and missing a single planned trip due to their stubborn reliance upon their own sense of time was usually enough to get the average citizen to comply. However, Benjamin H. Brewster was no average citizen—he was the 37th U.S. Attorney General, and he publicly demanded that the railroads cease their efforts to standardize time until it could be addressed by the federal legislature (which had shown little if any interest in the subject.)

Brewster informed federal departments that they should ignore any standardized timetables from the railroads, and continue to rely upon local timekeeping. He then set out from his office to board a train from Washington, D.C. to Philadelphia—and discovered that it had departed eight minutes earlier, according to railroad time, regardless of the conditions in the nation’s capital. The story of Brewster missing a train due to his own stubborn refusal to accept the conditions surrounding him is apocryphal, but it is also illustrative. When it comes to time, and the standardization of it, individual preferences carry no weight. At times, it is necessary to simply accept that the desires of the individual are irrelevant when compared to the behavior of the masses.

Next week, I’ll examine how the very concept of time has been politicized over the past two centuries. You might be surprised to discover how the control over “standard time” offers substantial aspects of control over the daily lives of people living in that time.